Saturday, March 29, 2014

While We're Far Apart

Author: Lynn Austin
Pages: 408
Rating: PG (nothing is really graphic or too detailed for younger kids, but it is about war, so....)

In an unassuming apartment building in Brooklyn, New York, three lives intersect as the reality of war invades each aspect of their lives. Young Esther is heartbroken when her father decides to enlist in the army shortly after the death of her mother. Penny Goodrich has been in love with Eddie Shaffer for as long as she can remember; now that Eddie's wife is dead, Penny feels she has been given a second chance and offers to care for his children in the hope that he will finally notice her and marry her after the war. And elderly Mr. Mendel, the landlord, waits for the war to end to hear what has happened to his son trapped in war torn Hungary. But during the long, endless wait for victory overseas, life on the home front will go from bad to worse. Yet these characters will find themselves growing and changing in ways they never expected and ultimately discovering truths about God's love. . .even when He is silent.

My Thoughts: I really enjoy Lynn Austin's novels. A lot of times Christian novels have that one character who is so annoyingly perfect in their faith that they seem completely unrealistic. And they're constantly reciting phrases like, "Just trust in the Lord, honey, and it will all be fine." Austin's characters are a lot more believable to me, and they also often are struggling with their faith.

But, let me start at the beginning. This book is NOT a love story. Although Penny thinks she is in love with Eddie, she's really not, and the story is more about the children and Mr. Mendel dealing with the difficulties and uncertainties of war than it is about anything else. Mr. Mendel is a Jewish man who has been struggling with his faith. His wife died in a car crash a year ago, and his son is trapped in Europe during the most dangerous time possible. Mr. Mendel doesn't understand why God has allowed such terrible things to happen to him. Soon, Esther and Peter, the children who live upstairs from him, become his friends, and they begin to help each other with their sorrows and problems. I love that the author chose to weave together Mendel's Jewish faith with the childrens' Christian faith. Mr. Mendel tells the children the stories of Esther and Joseph from the Old Testament, helping them to understand that God is working in the background even when it seems he is not there. I loved that Austin brought out the commonalities in the two religions and created a bond between her characters with it.

I happen to love World War II era novels, and this one was another great one. Each character is presented with such clarity and they each have their own obstacle to overcome. Penny, for instance, grew up in a household that was so strict and overprotective, that she has very low self-confidence. Her mother always told her that she was not smart or capable, and is furious with her for deciding to take on the care of Eddie Shaffer's two children. She thinks Penny will not be able to do it. Penny is a great character who gets the opportunity to discover so many things about herself and about life in general once she sets herself free from the prejudices and fears of her parents.

I highly recommend this book. It's just really good, and as is typical of Lynn Austin, the religiousness of the book never feels forced. It just belongs there as naturally as anything. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Book Thief

Author: Markus Zusak
Pages: 550
Rating: PG
It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

My Thoughts: First of all, whether you've seen the movie or not, GO READ THIS BOOK! I have not seen the movie, but I already know I don't have to see it to know the book is absolutely worth reading. This is one of those books that while the story itself is moving and captivating, you read the book for the way it is written. Zusak is a master of figurative language, and he spins sentences so beautiful you have to read them twice just to make sure you are absorbing the full meaning of it.

"The words were on their way, and when they arrived, Leisel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like the rain."
"Two giant words were struggled with, carried on her shoulder, and dropped as a bungling pair at Ilsa Hermann's feet. They fell off sideways as the girl veered with them and could no longer sustain their weight. Together, they sat on the floor, large and loud and clumsy."
"The reply floated from his mouth, then molded itself like a stain to the ceiling. Such was his feeling of shame."
"The guilt was already there. It was moist. The seed was already bursting into a dark-leafed flower."
"Her nerves licked her palms."
"The wind showered through her hair. Her feet swam with the pedals."
"A graze struck a match on the side of her face, where she'd met the ground. Her pulse flipped it over, frying it on both sides."

See what I mean? You just can't get that from a movie. It's incredible. As for the actual story - I really enjoyed reading about World War Two from the perspective of a young, relatively safe German girl, whose family ends up hiding a Jew. She and her best friend end up really hating Hitler, because their lives are miserable. They are poor, hungry, and their fathers are forced into service because they don't always agree with everything the Nazis say. Leisel is a foster child, who watched her brother die on the train on the way to her foster parents' house in another part of Germany. When she arrives, she does not know how to read, but her foster father Hans painstakingly teaches her until she is obsessed with books and reading. She lives an extremely difficult life, but in the process she learns kindness, love, and selflessness. She never buys in to the German propaganda that Jews are the enemy. After all, the Jew they are hiding in the basement has become one of her closest friends.

Another favorite thing about this book is that Death is the narrator. It's a different perspective that's for sure. He is not vindictive or gleeful. He is simply an observer, and he sometimes is quite sorrowful at all he is required to observe. He says that war is not his friend. It is more like a boss that keeps demanding that you work even harder than you ever have before, and is never pleased with your performance. Also, Death doesn't believe in suspense. He pretty much tells you the ending multiple times before it happens. The ending isn't important, it's the journey to get there that he wants to tell.

This is one of the best books I've ever read. Don't just watch the movie. You MUST read this book. It's incredible.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Charlie St. Cloud

Author: Ben Sherwood (Alternate title: The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud)
Pages: 269
Rating: PG-13 (There is a sex scene, and although it only lasts about 2 pages, it is more on the graphic side than the vague side. Just to warn you. However, it was not extremely graphic or crude)

In a snug New England fishing village, Charlie St. Cloud tends the lawns and monuments of an ancient cemetery where his younger brother, Sam, is buried. After surviving the car accident that claimed his brother's life, Charlie is graced with an extraordinary gift: He can see, talk to, and even play catch with Sam's spirit. Into this magical world comes Tess Carroll, a captivating woman training for a solo sailing trip around the globe. Fate steers her boat into a treacherous storm that propels her into Charlie's life. Their beautiful and uncommon connection leads to a race against time and a choice between death and life, between the past and the future, between holding on and letting go — and the discovery that miracles can happen if we simply open our hearts.

My Thoughts: I loved this book. I read it in only a few days! Sherwood writes his love story in a way that sweeps you right off your feet, and isn't even the slightest bit cheesy, but this is not just a love story, it's also a story about dealing with death, and letting go of loved ones when they pass on.

Charlie St. Cloud feels responsible for the death of his younger brother, because he was driving the car when they were hit by the drunk driver. He feels that he could have avoided the crash. Both boys actually die, and they make a promise to each other that they will never leave each other, that they will always be there for the other. Charlie, however, is shocked back to life by paramedics, who are unable to save Sam. Soon after Sam's funeral, Charlie discovers that he can still see and talk to Sam, but only on the grounds of the cemetery. So begins the nightly ritual: Charlie meets Sam in a secluded area of the cemetery just at sunset, and they spend their evenings together. If Charlie misses one night, he is sure Sam will be gone. Charlie gives up nearly everything to spend his evenings with Sam. He refuses to move away, and he rarely dates at all. He becomes the groundskeeper at the cemetery and finds that he is beginning to see the spirits of others who have died, but they usually only hang around for a few days before moving on to whatever is next. Sam, however, always stays.

Charlie has never let anything or anyone come before his promise to always be there for Sam, until Tess comes along. Tess seems to be everything Charlie has ever wanted, and she even meets Sam! Unfortunately, Tess has a major problem in her life, and Charlie ends up having to make a choice between his love for Tess, and his commitment to Sam.

I think my favorite part of this book was the interactions that Charlie has with all the other spirits of the deceased as he watches their funerals with them. Often, they mourn along with the loved ones they have left behind. I like the idea that our friends and family who die are feeling the pain of departure along with us, even though they know they have moved on to a better place.

Like I said, this was a great book. I have not yet seen the movie, but I plan on it. Even if you have seen the movie, read the book anyway, because almost always, the book is better, or at least just has more depth than you could possibly cram into two hours of screen time. You won't regret it.